Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sotted, Not Besotted

The headline: "She Can Play That Game, Too." The subhead: "The guys on college campuses want to have casual sex, and the girls want romance, right? Increasingly, however, women are the ones looking to hook up." The photo: an 8.5" x 8.5" shot of an unidentified though clearly eager young woman inviting a man into her bed.

The story, which ran from page one of the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times of July 14, jumped inside to two full pages, where seven additional anonymized photos suggested that a hookup orgy was underway at the University of Pennsylvania, the lucky Ivy chosen for this investigation by Times reporter Kate Taylor.

Her readers were so turned on by the account of Penn women's lust for casual sex that it instantly became the paper's most emailed article, and as of this writing had drawn some 800 comments. If nothing else, this attests to the staying power of Times readers, for the piece ran upward of 100 paragraphs.

I mention this count because not until paragraph sixty-five did Taylor get around to noting: "Women said universally that hookups could not exist without alcohol, because they were for the most part too uncomfortable to pair off with men they did not know well without being drunk." (My italics.)

That observation strikes this old-fashioned journalist as worthy of placement just a tad or two higher in the story. Instead, Taylor devoted the first three-fifths of her piece to anonymous quotes ("I positioned myself in college in such a way that I can't have a meaningful romantic relationship because I'm always busy . . . .") and the usual bakeoff between experts (hooking up is a functional strategy for hard-charging women, says one; they'll be sorry, says another).

Taylor eventually deals briefly with date rape and the roles of alcohol and drugs in hookups (though not STDs). But she moves quickly on, to a study of 24,000 students at twenty-one universities. It showed, said New York University sociologist Paula England, who led the study, that women "tended to fare much better sexually in relationships than in hookups." 

So it would seem. Dig deep enough into the article and you discover that the headlines, pictures and first half of the piece are mostly a tabloid tease.  "For all the focus on hook-ups," Taylor writes in paragraph eighty-one, "campuses are not sexual free-for-alls, at Penn or elsewhere. At colleges nationally, by senior year, 4 in 10 students are either virgins or have had intercourse with only one person, according to the Online College Social Life Survey."

College drinking, on the other hand . . . .

*   *   *

After the Barn Update: Thanks to Chris Robley, who blogs for Book Baby, which converted and distributed my memoir, for devoting a post to the book. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

No Longer Just for "Charlatans and Ninnies"

In my previous post (June 14), I called attention to the first of two generous articles about my memoir,  After the Barn. They were written by Michael Miner, one of Chicago's leading journalists and a mainstay at that city's weekly Reader since 1979. Following is his second column.



In 2009 Richard Pollak finished writing After the Barn, the family memoir he'd begun some 20 years earlier. Twice he set the project aside to write—and publish—other books: The Creation of Dr. B, a biography of Bruno Bettelheim; and The Colombo Bay, an account of life on a container ship as it sailed from Hong Kong to New York by way of the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal.
After the Barn was a smaller book, a more personal book, the kind of book publishers don't know how to promote even though readers often find them deeply gratifying. I'm one of those readers, and I wrote at length about Pollak's memoir on the Bleader earlier . . . . This post isn't about the book; it's about what happened after he finally finished writing it.
Nobody wanted to publish it.
What about Simon & Schuster? S&S brought out Dr. B and Colombo Bay, and his editor there liked the early pages of After the Barn that Pollak showed her.
Pollak tells me his agent "said it was pointless to send the manuscript to S&S because the market had tanked, especially for memoirs." He changed agents. His new agent said the same thing— Simon & Schuster was too big a house for his memoir. But she was "cautiously optimistic that it would find a home at a smaller house." She sent the book to a dozen editors and Pollak himself approached a half dozen more.
"Most passed without comment," he said in an e-mail. "Others passed, too, but said nice things, e.g., 'I read and was very moved by your memoir. You, of course, write beautifully . . .' (Nan Talese, Doubleday) and 'I have read fifty pages so far of your memoir. What I have read is beautiful and very sad—and I do plan to go on reading. But what I do know is that Nation Books is not the imprint for your book . . . . I write this completely under the spell of your haunting prose' (Carl Bromley, Nation Books)."

Eventually his agent gave up and Pollak stuffed his manuscript in a bottom drawer—"somewhat grouchily, I confess." But last fall he had a change of heart.
"Stop sulking, said my wife, serialize the book at your blog. After months of dithering, I genuflected to Dickens and did just that, beginning last September. Many readers of the weekly installments also found the book compelling, so I gave the manuscript one last edit and took the e-book route, where you find me now. Book Baby, which converted the manuscript to ePub and zapped it to Kindle, Nook and ten or so other retailers, also supplies printed copies. I ordered 150 [at roughly $10 each] and so far have sold about forty. With luck, paperback and e-book sales eventually will bring in enough to rethatch the roof on this industry's cottage.
"Or, with a great deal more luck," Pollak went on, "the book will go viral [and] Simon & Schuster or one of my other previous publishers will emerge from under their desks and reconsider."
What Pollak called step one, creating the e-book, is "easy and inexpensive." Book Baby charged him $249, though the printed copies were extra. The e-book price of $4.99 was one he set himself. Amazon and the other e-tailers give him a 70 percent cut of that $4.99, passing it along to Book Baby, which deposits it in Pollak's account without keeping any for itself.
"Step two is the hard part: promoting the book," Pollak told me. "You have to do this yourself, which many writers find difficult because (like me) they lack the Barnum gene. But it's a must! (Can this old dog learn new e-tricks on Twitter and Facebook? We shall see.) For what it's worth, my experience with Book Baby was smooth from start to finish."
I like to write about authors who publish their own books because once upon a time writers who turned to vanity presses were generally held—certainly by me—to be charlatans and ninnies, and it is necessary to eradicate that stain. It's necessary because self-publication has become not merely the only option to that bottom drawer but an attractive option. It's quick and inexpensive, and the results can be very handsome. And because shabby commercial compromises don't have to be made, self-publication guarantees that the book that appears is the book the author had in mind in the first place (for better or worse). For those terms, writers are increasingly willing to pay a price: no advance and no promotion you don't drum up on your own.
"Book Baby also keeps tabs of my earnings," Pollak mentioned, "which I can monitor just by logging into my account. Compare all this to the business model of the past, where the publisher gives you 15 percent of hardcover sales and 7 percent of the paperbacks."
Seventy percent of $4.99 is pretty comparable to 15 percent of a hardcover price upwards of $20, except that publishers couldn't imagine a lot of readers paying upwards of $20 for Pollak's unhappy memoir and turned it down, so the comparison's meaningless. Our modern do-it-yourself culture signifies—to me at least—worrisome social atomization; but one thing good about it is that if you have to, you can. 
*  *  *

To read the first two chapters of After the Barn, and/or to order the e-book, please click here. To order the paperback, contact Tom Parker at tom@parkerartists.com or at 212-864-7928.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Chicago Reader

A few days ago, Michael Miner, a longtime fixture in Chicago journalism, upstaged me. I had been planning to write two or three blog posts here about the often daunting process that finally led to the recent publication of After the Barn, my memoir about coming to grips with my brother's early death and other family traumas. Now Miner has taken on the subject, in two thoughtful columns in The Chicago Reader, the city's widely read, 42-year-old alternative weekly. Here is the first:



Autobiographies tend to be turgid vanity projects, a slog through the minutiae of personal history on the dubious assumption that someone cares. A memoir, however, is often very different—an attempt to distill from a life the story buried there that explains it. This story often involves a quest to confront a childhood mystery. Every childhood is enough of a mystery that we all relate.

Last February I wrote about Michael Hainey's After Visiting Friends, a memoir about his quest to learn the circumstances of his father's sudden death, which happened when he was six and about which his mother never spoke. As Hainey's father had worked at the Sun-Times just before I got there, and as I knew how he died years before Hainey figured it out and knew most of the people he approached for information, I turned the pages avidly. I felt as much a part of the book as outside it.

Hainey's haunting question could be answered, and it was. Dick Pollak's quest was a little different. In August 1948, he was playing in the hayloft of a barn in south central Michigan with his younger brother, Stephen. Dick was 14, Stephen 11. Dick would remember—or he'd think he remembered—or he'd go through life haunted by the memory whether it was true or not—that his mother called up, "Time to go, boys," and he yelled down, "Tell him you'll punish him if he doesn't stop hiding." And right then, with those cold words barely beyond his lips, his brother fell through a hole in the loft that the hay had concealed. He fell 35 feet and died.

Let me skip ahead 42 years.

In 1990 Bruno Bettelheim committed suicide at the age of 86. Reading the local obituaries, I concluded that Chicago's media hadn't given the great child psychologist (director of the University of Chicago’s Orthogenic School for troubled children) and author (The Uses of Enchantment) his due, and I wrote a snippy little item in my Reader column:

Some Professor Down in Hyde Park
RIP Bruno Bettelheim, who apparently was understood to be a great Chicagoan everywhere but in Chicago. We appreciated the thoughtful page-one obit in the next morning's New York Times; from the play the local papers gave his death, he might as well have been a waiter at the Berghoff.

The first response was an angry phone call from a Berghoff waiter. But soon the letters began to pour in. Most came from former patients. "He was an evil man who set up his school as a private empire and himself as a demigod or cult leader," said the first, setting the tone for what followed. "He bullied, awed, and terrorized the children at his school, their parents, school staff members, his graduate students, and everyone else who came into contact with him."

A former counselor at the school wrote, "The Bettelheim I knew had little mercy in his heart, and exuded a particularly obnoxious strain of old Viennese arrogance."

The Reader published 15 letters in all setting me straight about Bettelheim.
Now I'll skip ahead another 23 years. A couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail from Richard Pollak. He said, "I am the author of The Creation of Dr. B, the biography of Bruno Bettelheim published by Simon & Schuster in 1997. I likely never would have undertaken the project had Chicago friends not called my attention to the letters and your writing that appeared in the Reader after Bettelheim's suicide in 1990."

The e-mail went on, "At the time I was working on a quite different book, a memoir that dealt with—along with much else—my brother's early death in 1948, while on vacation from the Orthogenic School. . . . After finishing the biography, I wrote another book, then returned to the memoir in fits and starts; I finally published it about a month ago. It's called After the Barn."

Any book whose publication I'm responsible for holding up some 20 years is a book I'd better pay attention to when it finally arrives. Pollak sent me a copy, and I just finished it. . . .
Miner has more to say about After the Barn. To read all of this first column, click here. Watch for his second column in a subsequent post.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


One thing I didn't count on when I self-published my new book, After the Barn, was the chance to read in public. Whenever I'd read from my earlier books, such arrangements always had been made by the well-oiled publicity department of my publishing house. Now I was on my own, with nary a PR coddler in sight. What to do?

Well, ask Chris Doeblin, the lanky empresario of Book Culture, the superlative independent bookstore in my Upper West Side neighborhood, if he'd like to host a reading and signing. Sure, he said, without a blink. Now, suddenly, the event is upon me: tomorrow, June 6, at 7 P.M., details here.

Book Culture's warm reception emboldened me to try other venues, and so far so good. On June 10, I'll be reading, signing and answering questions at the Talbot County Free Library in Easton, Maryland. Why Easton? Because Diane Walsh, my pianist wife, will be performing there at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival, and for the past three decades I have been, if nothing else, her dedicated roadie.

I've also opened discussions with Jack Cella, manager of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore at the University of Chicago, to read there once the academy revs up again in the fall. I'm particularly eager to appear there, for I grew up in the neighborhood and much of After the Barn is set there (see, for example, the first two chapters, here.)

Did I mention that Book Culture will be serving wine and cheese tomorrow? Hope to see many of you there.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Taking the Plunge

"After the Barn is a gripping story of how a family deals with tragedy, and with secrets. But it is also a testament to the bravery inherent in seeking the clues to one's intimate past." – Daniel Okrent, first public editor of the New York Times and author of Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center and Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

“Richard Pollak, in his irresistible and affecting memoir, takes us on an odyssey in which we discover how tragedy extends far beyond the event itself to a lifetime of aftermath, of ripplings and reverberations hiding and appearing in unlikely and astonishing places. This is a beautiful book.” – Jenny McPhee, author of the novels A Man of No Moon, No Ordinary Matter and The Center of Things

*   *   *

Publishing your own book is like diving into an icy lake. The very prospect gives you the shivers. After endless hesitation, you screw up your courage and take the plunge. Just as you expected, you get an instant ice cream headache and the water threatens to freeze your capillaries. Then, to your astonishment, you get used to it, and pretty soon you're splashing about, shouting to the ditherers on shore, "Come on in! This ain't so bad." 

And it isn't. Yes, I sometimes miss the cosseting I received at the houses that published my previous books: the generous (sort of) advances, the checks picked up by hand-holding editors at extravagant lunches, the sharp-eyed copy editor who gently noted that the semi-colon goes after the quotation mark, the forgiveness (grudging) after the third missed deadline. But managing your own fate has its virtues, as more and more writers are beginning to discover.

Among them is the Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet, who is self-publishing his next book, a novella and two short stories about war. "Basically I am doing this because I'm a curmudgeon," he told the New York Times last month, "and because publishing is like Hollywood–nobody ever does the marketing they promise." Seconded!

As followers of this blog know, I serialized After the Barn here beginning last fall, under the title A Brother's Version. When I shopped the manuscript around, several editors and agents gave it high marks, but all then dove under their desks, crying, But, oh, the market for memoirs is just terrible! This initially made me grouchy, but then Diane told me about Book Baby.

Diane is the Intrepid Wife who led the way when we traveled the globe in 2011 (see posts in archive, left). She is also a concert pianist whose recordings have been digitized and distributed by CD Baby, which now, through its Book Baby arm, does the same for writers. They made my Word manuscript e-book worthy in a week; once I approved the proofs, they zapped After the Barn to Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iPhone, iPad and half a dozen smaller retailers.

I set the price at $4.99 and get 70 percent of all sales, compared to a fifth of that from a conventional publisher. True, there's no advance, but my initial outlay was small, and, who knows, maybe the book will go viral (Twitter and Facebook, please note). While waiting, I'm more than happy with the results so far.

When I wrote for Newsweek, my pieces went out weekly to millions of readers. I never heard from any of them, save for my parents, whose main reaction was irritation that the magazine didn't grant bylines. Since launching After the Barn into cyberspace a few weeks ago, I've heard from dozens of readers, friends as well as strangers. Most of them have liked the book, which is reward enough.

If you haven't given After the Barn a try already, I hope you will. Details here.  

Saturday, March 30, 2013

New Title, New Book

Many readers who had kind words for A Brother’s Version, the memoir I recently serialized here, asked when it would appear as a book. The answer is soon, with the new title you see here on the fine cover designed by my friend Malcolm Frouman. . . .

. . . .This re-edited, reformatted e-book version is much easier to read than the blog installments and will be available before April is out at Amazon and other retailers. Printed copies will also be available in the next few weeks; people have already begun signing up for these, so please let me know if you want one (or more!) and I’ll add you to the list.

I wrote After the Barn because I hoped doing so would shake loose memories long suppressed, which to a revelatory extent it did. I also successfully unearthed facts about my brother's treatment at the Orthogenic School, Bruno Bettelheim's home for emotional disturbed children at the University of Chicago, and learned how our parents coped with Stephen's mental illness and with his devastating death, at age eleven. Completing the memoir provided many answers, as well as a measure of catharsis, and it was gratifying to hear from many readers who found that the narrative helped them better understand family trials they, too, had faced. I hope new readers also will find the memoir both compelling and salutary, and look forward to your comments and to exchanging ideas. Anyone curious to read a sample of the book will find Chapter I at my website: www.richardpollak.com


I launched You're Only Old Once in December 2010 just before Diane, my intrepid wife, and I embarked on a trip around the world. We were gone from our Manhattan apartment for just shy of a year, traveling through China, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Turkey, Italy, Austria, Germany, France and England. Our journey put us on nine airplanes, eight intercity trains, countless buses, trams and subway cars, and one boat up the Rhine. We dined out at least 400 times and slept in 28 different beds–that is, if you count the two other foreign countries we visited: California and Brooklyn. During this Wanderjahr, I posted thirty-plus weekly travel vignettes, all of which (with photos) are in the 2011 archive on your left, in reverse chronological order. And what, you may well ask, prompted us to undertake this mad expedition? Well, for starters Jane Fonda and Ludwig van Beethoven.